In 1997 Rick Pitino left the University of Kentucky Basketball program to become the coach of the Boston Celtics. He had resurrected a program that was embarrassed and on probation prior to his arrival, leading them to 3 Final Four appearances and a National Championship. Replacing him seemed a daunting task. But Kentucky Athletic Director C.M. Newton knew who he wanted to replace him, and he had a strategy to find out if it was the right fit.
The man he wanted was former assistant Tubby Smith who at the time was a budding head coach at Georgia. But he had to know more. Hiring a coach can be extremely complicated, but Newton sat down Smith privately during the interview process and simplified it (Footnote 1). He didn’t want to talk money or terms, he just asked one basic question: “Do you want THIS job?”
Newton knew he would find out if Tubby was his man based on the answer he got. Having been an assistant under Pitino, Smith knew the rigors and the particulars of “this job” --The higher expectations, the pressure, the rabid fans, the media responsibilities (Footnote 2), and the overall uniqueness of the program. It was a lot more than just coaching a basketball team. Newton needed to know if that was something Smith would embrace.
Tubby gave the answer Newton was looking for and went on to lead Kentucky to a National Championship in his first year as coach.
The Tennessee football program has some parallels to Kentucky basketball. Rabid fan base. High expectations. Unique challenges. New AD Dave Hart is looking for his man. It’s hard to tell exactly who that is, but clearly the people’s choice is Jon Gruden. Nobody knows how serious things are on either side in reality, but rumors and speculation continue to fester. While they do, let’s go through a series of issues Gruden would have to sort out under “The Newton Question”:
1. DOES HE WANT TO RECRUIT? As we know this is a separate full time job aside from the rigors of working with your current team. It is an art form with many nuances. Despite his tremendous charisma and name recognition this would be tedious for some that have been career NFL’ers.
2. DOES HE HAVE THE PATIENCE TO WORK WITH YOUNG PLAYERS? Gruden went 95-81 in his 14 seasons as an NFL Head Coach. Of the 14 years, only 6 were teams who finished with winning records. In those 6 years his starting Quarterbacks were Rich Gannon in his age 35 and 36 seasons, Brad Johnson at 34, and Jeff Garcia in his age 37 and 38 seasons. Only in 2005 did he use a starter with any sort of inexperience (Brian Griese age 30 split time with young Chris Simms age 25). Gruden does the wonderful one on ones in the film room with the prospective draftees on ESPN, but during his tenure as a coach he clearly preferred veterans. Could he see himself adjusting?
3. DOES HE WANT TO “BABYSIT”? It sounds juvenile, but it is a bigger part of the college game than the pro game. When Rod Dowhower (career NFL’er) became coach at Vanderbilt he had his academic supervisor Gary Gibson secretly ride his bike around campus to check class attendance the week of his first game as the Commodores coach. Gibson reported back to Dowhower that 3 key defensive starters had all skipped at least one class, handing him the sheet of paper with his findings. Dowhower looked at the sheet and asked Gibson what his recommendation was. Gibson, a strict ex-military man with a flat top to boot, suggested the players be suspended for Saturday’s game. Dowhower looked back at him in anguish, shaking the piece of paper as he yelled “But I’m trying to win FOOTBALL GAMES here Gibby!!” A rude awakening indeed. (By the way the players were not suspended. Vanderbilt lost anyway.)
4. DOES HE WANT TO BE THE PROGRAM MANAGER? Former Arkansas and Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt recently noted on Sportsnight how all of the NFL coaches he ever runs into are always wearing sweatsuits. He said it in envy. Coaches love wearing sweatsuits. But as Nutt pointed out, there are many things that come with the job that go beyond preparing your team. What if a highly touted recruit and his family show up to the offices unannounced? What about all of the times you will be asked to go speak to this booster group, or that civic club? What about when parents who aren’t happy with their son’s playing time are constantly in your ear? Again, it’s an art form. And no matter how good you are with the media, it’s not for everybody.
So Jon Gruden - Do You Want This Job?
The right guy for the Tennessee job will end up embracing all of these things (yes he will have to know how to coach football as well). If John Gruden wants this job he will have to embrace them. He can’t just be the guy bunkered deep in his self-made film cave. Despite the business side of things, it really shouldn’t be about more money, a stake in the Browns, “total control”, etc. It should be about whether Gruden WANTS this job. If he is still undecided at this point, or if it is all about additional enticements, is he really the can’t miss guy Tennessee fans think he is?
Maybe there are perfectly reasonable explanations as to why this seems to be taking so long. Maybe Gruden has moved on and so has UT. Maybe they haven’t even met yet. But regardless, Dave Hart needs to get his answer to the C.M. Newton question. When Hart (who has known and respected Newton for a very long time) gets the answer that Tubby Smith gave C.M. Newton, he’ll know he has his man. Will that man be Gruden?
FOOTNOTE 1: Newton recounted this meeting with Tubby Smith in an interview he did on our show shortly after hiring him.
FOOTNOTE 2: As a young color announcer for Vanderbilt Basketball during this era it always amused me that when Tubby was at Georgia he was always accessible for a pregame interview day of game. You could just walk right up to him with your tape recorder. But when he got to UK there became a huge wall around him. No interviews. Not even with the opposing team’s radio network. Different deal.